The Island that Time Forgot (East Kalimantan)
The Jakarta Post -- WEEKENDER | Sun, 11/23/2008 1:56 PM |
Pulau Derawan is hard to reach but easy to love. Lonely Planet Borneo author Muhammad Cohen shares his favorite Kalimantan hideaway.
For some travelers, the ideal tropical island getaway includes plush designer décor, exotic spa treatments, celebrity chef dining with a cultural side dish of native dancing, broadband Wi-Fi, 100-plus television channels and discoing until dawn. Those travelers will steer clear of Pulau Derawan.
But if you’re looking for a taste of village life before TV soaps and air con became part of the social fabric, crossing paths with turtles en route to your room and fresh food served family style amid some of best diving on the planet, then make the trip to Derawan.
Situated about 20 kilometers off the coast of East Kalimantan, Derawan attracts enterprising tourists as gateway to the Sangalaki archipelago, a chain of 30-something islands and atolls renowned for its marine life. Further offshore, Pulau Karaban is the home to an ecologically significant lake featuring a unique species of jellyfish that has lost its sting due to lack of predators, limestone caves populated by swiftlets that make nests for bird’s nest soup, and huge coconut crabs.
Pulau Sangalaki and its surrounding waters are famous for manta rays and endangered green turtles. Many top dive sites here are at moderate depths of 15–20 meters. Even snorkelers stand a good chance of catching rays gently beating their wings to glide like birds through the brine. Scuba divers can fly right along with the mantas, with the bonus of extra long dive times.
This heavy breathing reporter, usually lucky to get beyond 25 minutes on a tank, enjoyed nearly an hour of bottom time on each of two dives with a great sampling of the hundreds of species of brilliantly colored reef fish and coral along with a dozen rays. Formerly host to an international diving resort, Sangalaki now accommodates a Turtle Foundation anti-poaching monitoring station staffed by local and international conservation groups, backed by special maritime police patrols.
Pulau Nabucco and Pulau Maratua have fancy dive resorts out in the archipelago. But if you stay there, you miss the charms of Pulau Derawan and its villagers. Using Derawan as your base carries the additional bonus of fishing for dinner off the back of your boat on the way home.
The journey doesn’t stop once you land. Derawan’s fishing village of about 300 families transports visitors back to simpler times. The island is only lightly touched by the 21st century, or even the 20th for that matter. It’s also lightly touched by transport, so getting there poses a major challenge. But that degree of difficulty helps Derawan maintain its charm.
A teardrop-shaped island of 45 hectares that can be circled on foot in less than an hour, Derawan has electricity from dusk to dawn only. (Accommodations that run generators during daylight hours violate the spirit of the island.) Without TV or air con to distract them, Derawan islanders spend their time on the front porches inside their wooden plank houses on stilts above the sand. They talk to their neighbors and to visitors who happen by. With just two paths, one following the coast and the other leading to the coconut plantation at the center of the island, both lined with houses, not much goes unnoticed. Kids easily find playmates and invent games. A few warung sell snacks and sundries (and maybe beer out the back door), but best to bring your own fruits and potables. If all you’re looking for is a chill, follow the path out of town to a white sand beach.
Days are marked less by the clock or the prayer calls – Derawan’s Bajau population traces its roots to the Sulu sultanate; Muslims for sure, but more defined by their other label: Sea Gypsies – than by local rituals. In the early morning, boats return from a night of fishing, reserve some of the catch, most likely tuna, for the island and send the rest to Berau, the closest city on the Borneo “mainland”. By mid-afternoon, the boats return, and a couple of wooden carts soon roll around the village, laden with newly arrived fruits, vegetables and market news. The island has no cars and only a few motorcycles, which, like generators, run against the spirit of the place.
Once the afternoon sun drops, young women come out to play volleyball where the two roads meet, contests with a surprisingly high level of talent and competition. Young men follow with games that are more skillful but less spirited.
If you’re lodging at Losmen Danakan, a homestay with rooms on a pier stretching 50 meters out into the sea, you can watch turtles and seahorses slipping between dock pilings. You can walk down the steps and into the water to swim right along with them. Emerge on the adjacent sliver of beach and join youngsters catching (and releasing) crabs. Off in the distance, you may be lucky enough to see a dolphin leap into a glorious sunset vista of fishing boats bobbing off shore as crews prepare for another night of work at sea.
Danakan means “family” in the sea patois that arose between traders and fishing crews in these waters, and that’s the spirit at this simple guesthouse. Staff at Danakan specialize in making guests feel welcome as part of the extended clan. Rooms and furnishings are simple: It’s a place for sitting outside and relishing the setting. When the electricity switches on, a room fan supplements the sea breeze, with the slosh of the surf below a gentle lullaby.
If Ernest Hemingway came back as a sensitive, new age guy, he’d come to Danakan to fish by day and write (and recharge his laptop) at night. Like other tourists, he’d be lured by the marine life but get hooked on the village’s charm. For tourists, at least, the living is awfully easy here. In today’s world, it’s increasingly difficult to find places as beguilingly simple as Derawan.
In addition to guide books, Muhammad Cohen is the author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel about TV news, love, betrayal, high finance and cheap lingerie.
Fly to Balikpapan, and on to Berau (also known as Tanjung Redep). From Berau, charter a speedboat (sepit) for the three-hour crossing. Alternatively and more economically, take a Kijang to Tanjung Batu, a fishing village two-and-a-half hours east. From there, either charter a sepit for a one-hour crossing or take pot luck from the local pier. A challenge, but the reward makes it worthwhile.
Places to stay
- Derawan Dive Resort
Primarily selling multinight packages to divers, the resort also rents its rustic, air-conditioned bungalows to walk-ins, when available. The open-air dining area has spectacular sunset views.
Tel: (542) 707 2615, www.divederawan.com
- Losmen Danakan
Warm and welcoming family-run guesthouse built on pilings over the sea. Linger outside your austere all-wood room to drink in the salt air and scenery. Three simple, fresh meals a day are included, served at long dining table that encourages mingling and swapping tales.
Tel: (868) 121 6143
Both places offer complete diving services, including excursions throughout the Sangalaki archipelago.